Even though Douro is the world’s oldest demarcated wine region, it is not know for its table wines. Douro winemakers produced port wine in part because of climatic conditions. The weather can be very hot during the harvest season, raising wine fermentation temperatures and killing the yeast that converts sugar into alcohol. When Fernando Nicolau de Almeida produced the first Barca Velha, in 1952, he famously carted blocks of ice at great expense to control the fermentation temperature.
The combination of modern wine-making technology and the Douro’s unique grapes is heralding a new era for the region. One example of this new beginning is Chryseia, a wonderfully elegant table wine made with grapes traditionally reserved for the great vintage Ports. It is produced by Bruno Prats, the famous wine maker from Bordeaux, and the Symington family, renowned for their port wines.
Chryseia means golden in Greek. The name is a reference to the Douro region (Douro means “made of gold” in Portuguese). But it is also a sign that, when two great wine names get together, they’ll settle for nothing less than brilliant.
Barca Velha is a mythical wine, the first Portuguese table wine to acquire an international reputation. Fernando Nicolau de Almeida, Casa Ferreirinha’s enologist, adapted the techniques used to produce vintage ports to make superlative table wine. After years of experimentation, he produced the first Barca Velha in 1952 with grapes from a vineyard planted by Dona Antónia Ferreira.
Since then, Barca Velha has been produced only 12 times, when the sun and the clouds joined forces to create exceptional grapes.
How did Nicolau de Almeida decide whether a vintage merited the Barca Velha name? He relied on his wife. He took an unlabeled bottle home to share with her at dinner. If they finished the bottle by the end of the meal, the vintage was a Barca Velha.
Dona Antónia Ferreira lived in turbulent times. She was born in 1811, the year in which Napoleon’s troops finally retreated from Portugal. When she inherited her grandfather’s wine business, another enemy came: the phylloxera epidemic.
Dona Antónia hired thousands of workers to graft her vines into the roots of American vines resistant to the pest. And it worked!
She went on to produce great port wines, plant new vineyards, and make a fortune. She used some of her wealth to endow schools and hospitals, earning the nickname Ferreirinha (little Ferreira) for her generosity.
In 1987, her descendants sold her company to Sogrape, another wine maker. But the brand Casa Ferreirinha endures as a symbol of quality. So, if you see a Ferreirinha bottle in your wine shop, take it home. And make a toast to Dona Antónia who believed that one can plant the seeds of prosperity during hard times.